I hope you'll excuse my recent absence; I've been gathering my thoughts. Let's get into a story now, shall we?
Calgary kicked off 2008 in a unique way - new regulations came into effect that banned city restaurants from cooking with fats that had a trans fat content of 2% or more. Any margarines and spreads used in the restaurants also had to have a trans fat content of less than 2%. Public health officials, dietitians, doctors, and citizens alike all applauded the city for being a leader in health, as it was the first Canadian city to enforce such a regulation. Even the federal government was slow to take action; in June 2007, Health Minister Tony Clement said it would give food companies two years to voluntarily lower the trans fat in our food supply. Specifically, to decrease the amount of trans fat in our fats and oil to 2% or less and in all other food items to 5% or less.
Since then, the Trans Fat Monitoring Program has been releasing reports on the trans fats in our food supply. Just last month, it found that most packaged products were complying (with compliance ranging from 58 - 91%, depending on the type of product), citing that having to list trans fats on the Nutrition Facts label was probably a motivation. On the other hand, only 43% of bakery products met the 5% limit, and yes, most of them are unlabelled.
Back in Alberta, Premier Steady Eddy and Health Minister Ron Liepert unveiled their plan to improve health care - they decided to get rid of the nine health regions, fire the 127 regional board members, and create a singular health SUPERBOARD! From the beginning, I was skeptical - Calgary's health care system already left more to be desired. I mean, you don't need to be a doctor to see that three adult hospitals and one children's hospital is not enough for a city with over a million people. I felt that the centralized system would make it harder for the city to advocate for better health care.
So far, the superboard hasn't had much to show in terms of lowering wait times and increasing access. It's given hefty severance packages to the former regional heads that they fired, then restructured the whole deal not long after it was in place, only to hand out more severance pay to more people they fired. Now they're running a $700 million operating deficit, which means they might have to close some hospital units before opening other ones (result: zero net increase in beds)
To top all of this off, Liepert has said he's "sick and tired of people whining about not enough health-care facilities in the city." And I thought, "Whatever, dude. You can only say that because you're not Calgarian and you haven't seen the patients that stay in staff lounges without bathrooms, or in the hallways behind dividers at the hospital."
But then I found out he is Calgarian. In fact, he's the MLA for my constituency.
While watching in-flight satellite TV on my way home from Montreal two weeks ago, I learned of another consequence of the superboard - the trans fat ban isn't in effect anymore because the Calgary Health Region, which enforced the regulations, doesn't exist anymore. Though the Calgary Herald claimed that Liepert said he wanted to "extend" the trans fat ban to the rest of the province when it first came out, he was later quoted as saying that he was going to take his cues from Health Canada, and in the mean time, hope that restaurants will voluntarily reduce trans fats.
I was, of course, disappointed. The government had the opportunity to make a gesture to show that they do care about Albertan's health, and they didn't. On top of that, if something like the trans fat ban was eliminated, what other health initiatives been swallowed up by the superboard? Of course, I was prepared for the onslaught of conservative opinion, applauding the government for not "encroaching on our personal freedoms", being a "nanny state", blahblahblah - like I haven't been in this argument before. And as predicted, this came a few days later in the form of Rob Breakenridge's column, "Do you want trans fats or fascism with your fries?"
I think living in such a conservative/Conservative city has influenced my views a bit, and I am actually kind of sitting on the fence when it comes to whether trans fats should be banned (more on that later). What irked me most was his implication that banning trans fats was "an affront to individual choice and freedom". I don't know of anyone who goes out of their way to choose foods high in trans fats. Some people choose to smoke because it relaxes them, or because of peer pressure, or because they're way addicted already, whatever. People choose to drink because they want to get drunk. But show me someone who can tell the difference between something fried in trans fats and something fried in other fats!
Breakenridge then tried to convince readers that trans fats aren't actually that bad by citing a group called the American Council on Science and Health. Names like this raise a red flag in my mind; I mean, did you know that the Council for Responsible Nutrition was a trade association for supplement manufacturers, or that the Center for Consumer Freedom is a coalition of restaurants, food companies, and (probably conservative) consumers? It didn't take much digging to find out what the ACSH is really about.
So, I ran the risk of another rerun of the "He sounded serious" debacle, and wrote a letter to the Herald.
Apparently, despite their "minuscule budget", the ACSH is one of those organizations that watches the Internet like a hawk to make sure no one is tarnishing their name (See: SCIENTOLOGY and ...I'm not going to say his name here because my friend almost got sued!) So it didn't take long for Gilbert Ross, medical director of the ACSH (and isn't he quite the character himself), to write a letter in response to my letter. I was relieved that he didn't succeed in making me sound stupid.
He says, "We protect the interests of consumers based on sound science." Sorry, what interests are you protecting when you go out and say, "No, no, there's actually no risk, everything's ok." Our interest in making sure our tax dollars are going to useful programs? OK, I can give you that. Our interest in not paying more when restaurants have to start switching to healthy fats? OK, fine, you can have that one too. But when was money my only interest? According to Facebook, my interests include 3/4 time signatures and pockets.
After living in Hong Kong, I think Canadians and Americans take for granted that we have a safe food supply. There's a huge locavore movement here which would never happen in China or Hong Kong (though they do eat a lot of local produce and livestock), because there, you never know if your milk has been spiked with melamine or if your steamed buns are stuffed with cardboard. I think having a safe food supply implies that it doesn't contain substances that kill us, whether it's in the form of food poisoning, or of substances like pesticides, herbicides, or trans fats that kill us slowly over time. If there's doubts about an additive that might be in my food, I'd define "protecting consumer interests" as erring on the side of caution rather than finding out in the long run that it shouldn't have been in my food in the first place. That's exactly what happened with trans fats. People knew saturated fats were bad, so they thought "What if we took unsaturated fats and changed them so they were *like* saturated fats? That wouldn't be so bad, right?" WRONG. And now people like that it's cheap and that it doesn't go rancid and won't let the government fix its mistake.
Ross goes on to say that the "'no trans fat mantra' is... distract[ing] consumers from other unhealthy food ingredients, especially highly calorie-dense foods that contribute much more to the problem of obesity." All right. It really frustrates me that the relationship between food and health has been dumbed down to weight gain vs. weight loss. I was actually reading about the Guinness Diet (no food, only Guinness, plus a glass of milk and a vitamin C supplement) for a presentation on diet myths not too long ago. I can't find the link I was looking at now, but it was saying how a man named Mike Burt tried it and lost 9 lb, and the comments were like "Oh wow! I guess Guinness is healthy!" How could it not have occurred to people that he probably lost all that weight because he was malnourished?
In the case of the trans fat issue, trans fats don't contribute to obesity any more than other types of fats. All contain 9 calories per gram. If someone swapped all the trans fats in a cookie for some other kind of fat, it would still have the same amount of calories. This isn't about the obesity crisis, it's about heart disease risk.
In the end, I wasn't the only one dissing the ACSH in the Herald. Maya Charlebois, the president of the Alberta Public Health Association, also wrote in to say the same thing. I wonder if Ross wrote her a letter too.
I recently read a paper that came out of the Rudd Centre at Yale showing the parallels in the marketing strategy of the food industry and the tobacco industry. Some of these strategies are:
- Focus on personal responsibility as the cause of the nation’s unhealthy
- Raise fears that government action usurps personal freedom.
- Vilify critics with totalitarian language, characterizing them as
the food police, leaders of a nanny state, and even “food fascists,”
and accuse them of desiring to strip people of their civil liberties.
- Criticize studies that hurt industry as “junk science.”
- Emphasize physical activity over diet.
- State there are no good or bad foods; hence no food or food type
(soft drinks, fast foods, etc.) should be targeted for change.
- Plant doubt when concerns are raised about the industry.
We're already seeing food manufacturers reduce the amount of trans fats in a lot of packaged goods because it has to be listed on the label. Some large franchises, which use standardized recipes and have the money to get their foods lab tested, have also moved towards reducing the trans fats in their food. The problem is, lots of foods that don't need to be labelled as thoroughly contain trans fats, and it's not just fried chicken or fries at a fast food place. Do you start your day with a coffee and a muffin, croissant, or other pastry? Order fried shrimp at a fancy seafood restaurant and then cap off the meal with a slice of pie? You could be eating trans fats. I think we already get the gist of why trans fats aren't good for us - in addition to raising "bad" LDL cholesterol, like saturated fats, it also decreases "good" HDL cholesterol, further increasing our risk of heart disease. The crux of the situation now is that we need to start caring and being more alert. It frustrates me when people say they are concerned with their health, but then have no qualms about making chicken wings for dinner every night or slathering cauliflower with new, fancy, high-fat and high-sodium products.
Big chain restaurants and food companies can afford to have their nutrition information, so ask to see it. Mom & Pop restaurants can't afford it, but I'm sure they'll be more than happy to tell you what kinds of fats they're using. Vote with your fork. Stop going to restaurants and bakeries that use trans fats and stop buying products that have trans fats. Obviously, the market is going to be slower than the government coming along and being like "NO TRANS FATS ALLOWED." But maybe, just maybe, if we all started caring about what we're buying and what we're putting in our mouths instead of being tempted by all the products and recipes that the food industry rolls out to grab our attention, they will start caring too. If the government is going to be spending money on a nutrition program, I think it should be on making it easier for us to know what's in our food, whether it's tougher nutrition labelling laws, or better health education curricula, so that it's easier for us to sway the market. If we don't end up with a safer, healthier food supply, then governments should go in and start being tougher on regulations. We have universal health care in Canada, and I think that includes preventative health measures in addition to paying for beds, hospitals, health care workers, and medication. I am disappointed that we don't have a trans fat ban anymore, but right now, I don't think Alberta Health Services should be working on a new one because it has more pressing issues, like paying off its debts so that it can work on lowering wait times and creating more beds and more jobs. Unfortunately, it hasn't been doing that. It's been spending money on severance packages.